When a medical school yearbook photo was leaked last week, allegedly exposing Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam as a college racist, the outlook for a sensible resolution to the situation seemed bleak. Now it’s inconceivable.
It’s not only that the governor supposedly sported blackface or a KKK hood back in — what year was it? — 1984, or that neither the yearbook editor nor the photographer had any qualms with the composition. Nor is it only that the controversy has overshadowed his alarming remarks about abortion, or that he first was sure and now isn’t sure it even is him in the photo.
No, any hope for a reasonable way forward vanished when public shaming and a carnal need for vigilante justice topped humanity’s list of priorities. No room for mercy. No more forgiveness.
Of course, the photo is horrific, those symbols reflecting abuse, terrorism and murder. There should be no room for such hate or mockery in America, especially from elected officials.
By those same principles, however, we shouldn’t give room for hate or mockery to come from those who would publicly flog every social wrongdoer.
Right on cue, the internet had its way with the governor. The responses ranged from humorous to rational to offensive.
Respectably, Northam apologized in a Twitter video hours after the photo surfaced on Friday, telling the state, “I accept responsibility for my past actions, and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust.”
It’s a nice plea, but it was already too late. Maybe he’s culled some sympathy from folks who think 35 years of reputable living since his foolish college days accounts for something, but that amounts to a pile of beans in the age of democratized justice. Nowadays, the internet and the goons who delight in dismantling a life 280 characters at a time will triumph. They have made it nigh impossible for victims to regain a semblance of their former life. Indeed, that often seems their only goal.
Some targets seem to hold it together on the outside after their harassing. Not everyone loses their careers, for instance, and it doesn’t yet appear that Northam will resign. But avoiding the pink slip doesn’t mean their private lives are trouble-free.
Journalist, author and filmmaker Jon Ronson has spent considerable time interviewing people who have been shamed through social media, investigating how they feel and what their lives look like after their public trial.
His verdict? “We want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled. They talked to me about depression, anxiety, insomnia and suicidal thoughts.”
And why should we expect someone be fine after enduring such vile reactions? After dentist Walter Palmer killed beloved Cecil the Lion in 2015 while on a hunting excursion, he came home to messages such as, “I hate you … I don't know you but how could you kill a lion? I hope your life is haunted for as long as you live,” and “YOU ARE a disgusting animal and the one who deserves the pain you have inflicted 10 times over, Rot in hell.”
And lest you think time heals all wounds, the passage of time doesn’t seem to matter to social media mobs. “It's been about a year since Cecil died and I still want Walter Palmer mauled by lions and killed in the most painful way. #SorryNotSorry,” wrote one person on Twitter.
Excepting the most heinous crimes, the real world promises an end to punishment. Six months, 10 years or however long the culprit serves, we extend our merciful arm to give them a second chance. It’s really a beautiful show of faith and forgiveness.
That principle hasn’t yet breached our virtual courtrooms, which often resemble 14th-century dungeons rather than places of truth and honest judgement. What about owning a Twitter account makes us believe we can be judge, jury and executioner?
Concludes Ronson, “Maybe there’s two types of people in the world: Those people who favor humans over ideology, and those people who favor ideology over humans. I favor humans over ideology. But right now, the ideologues are winning.”
Humans will come out on top only when we learn justice is incomplete without mercy and hate is always disgraceful, even when spewed in the name of retribution.